The word used most around here to describe the Vikings defense is versatile; Mike Zimmer has versatility in his schemes as well as versatility in his personnel. And no single player fits the bill more than Harrison Smith.
Smith is perhaps the most important player on the Minnesota defense. He is third on the team in solo tackles, first in yards per coverage snap and first in interceptions. Smith also has 1.5 sacks, which leads all non-defensive linemen on the Vikings. He plays an impeccable last line of defense, he covers slot receivers as well as anyone and he throws his body around in the trenches. Smith can do it all. Yet, somehow, three other NFC safeties were chosen ahead of Smith for the Pro Bowl. Considering he is the most complete safety in the game, it begs the question: How?
Here are the facts. Smith has played 39 percent of his snaps as a free safety, the rest in the box or in man. He mostly plays on the weak side of the field with a few snaps on the strong side sprinkled in. Smith has allowed .29 yards per coverage snap, which is seventh-most for a safety. He has the highest Pro Football Focus run-defense grade and the fifth-highest coverage grade among NFL safeties.
What this shows is that Smith is a jack-of-all-safety-trades, dominant at run-support, playing center field and manning the slot. It also shows Zimmer does not define his role in the secondary. He has some strong safety tendencies: Primarily, his frequency of playing in the box and his hard-nosed run-stopping. But the depth chart lists him as a free safety, he rarely plays on the strong side and he drops into deep zone far more than running mate Andrew Sendejo.
Here is a little speculation: The selectors for the Pro Bowl do not watch enough tape on Smith and view him as a strong safety. And with Landon Collins getting voted in (which is another issue in itself) and Malcolm Jenkins being the leader of the NFC’s top seed, Smith was bumped to third among strong safeties. Of course, Smith is better than both of these guys and could very easily have been selected ahead of either of them if those in charge wanted to.
The problem is that Smith is not technically a strong safety. He is a free safety and arguably the best in the league. But Earl Thomas got the spot. That is not an issue on its own, Thomas is a great player and has been for awhile. Smith has had the better season but Thomas is deserving of a Pro Bowl nod. The bigger issue is that Thomas was the only free safety selected. This was the case in both conferences, only one free safety slot. It does not make sense. Since there are absolutely no stakes to the game, why set a strict roster limit that means the free safety has no reserve?
Saying that, Smith should be starting ahead of Thomas. Truth is, Zimmer’s varied use of Smith may have been a factor in Smith’s absence from the Pro Bowl. Thomas is much more of the traditional Ed Reed-type, ball-hawking center field free safety. For reference, last week against the Rams, Thomas played 66 snaps. He lined up at free safety on 64 of those snaps (97 percent) and lined up in the box on just one snap (1.5 percent). Compare that with Smith’s 39 percent of snaps at free safety on the season.
It just might be that those making the Pro Bowl selections want to keep their positions in a strict box. And that means free safeties do not belong in the box.
Besides the mischaracterization of his position, there are two other possible reasons why Collins, Jenkins and Thomas were chosen over Smith: Numbers and reputation.
First, let us take a look at just the basic, raw numbers:
The simple statistics lean towards Smith as having the greatest overall impact of the four. Collins is the only one with more total tackles and none have more interceptions, pass break-ups or sacks. Plus, factor in that Thomas has missed two games and the choice to leave Smith out gets even more befuddling.
Then there is reputation. Thomas clearly has the the greatest pedigree of the four: Five Pro Bowls, four First Team All-Pro selections and arguably the best player on a Super Bowl defense. Collins and Jenkins, however, have histories more in line with Smiths. Each has gone to only one Pro Bowl before this season and they have just one First Team All-Pro between them (Collins last year). Smith has been to two with no All-Pro selections. However, Collins and Jenkins have the benefits of being high-profile players in large markets, whereas the Vikings are closer to a mid-market team.
Combine that with the perception that Smith is a strong safety moonlighting as a free safety and you have the formula for a snub.
Now, as players bow out for injury, rest, the Super Bowl or just because they do not want to go to Orlando, chances are Smith will get a nod (unless, of course, the Vikings are in the Super Bowl themselves). But the fact that Smith is going to have to wade through a variety of circumstances just to get recognition is less than ideal. He could conceivably earn All-Pro honors this year without making the Pro Bowl, after all.
Does the game itself matter? No, not at all. But one would hope that those in charge of identifying the best players in the game would be a little bit better at it.
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